Family’s plea after elderly man dies following lengthy ambulance wait

EXCLUSIVE: The State Coroner will investigate the death of an 89-year-old man who waited hours for an ambulance, with his son – a nurse – believing he would still be alive if help didn’t take so long to arrive.

Oct 20, 2021, updated Oct 23, 2021

Bernard Skeffington, known as Brian, died in the Royal Adelaide Hospital on September 30, after five days in intensive care following a lengthy wait for an ambulance at his North Plympton aged care unit.

His son, Martin Skeffington, said he died of aspiration pneumonia after breathing in vomit on the way to hospital, hours after his wife first called an ambulance.

His family say he waited about five hours but the SA Ambulance Service says the wait was less than four hours.

SA Ambulance Service pager records seen by InDaily show that an ambulance was dispatched to his independent living unit three times over the course of the day, but on each of those occasions was diverted to another more urgent job.

It was the fourth ambulance dispatched that eventually arrived.

On that day – September 25 – the ambulance service had declared an “OPSTAT RED” alert due to staff shortages, with levels of demand having a “sustained impact” on the “ability to deliver safe, quality patient services”.

Martin Skeffington – an experienced nurse – told InDaily he believes ambulance ramping and the delay in getting his father to hospital “absolutely” caused his death.

“If ambulances were able to get to people quicker it would have been a different outcome,” he said.

“Had he have been in hospital in a reasonable timeframe, an hour or two, they would have had a nasogastric tube down through his nose into his stomach, draining all that fluid and he wouldn’t have vomited and aspirated.

“He died from the complication of the aspiration.

“Anyone to wait five hours for an ambulance is just ridiculous.”

Martin Skeffington said his mother had called an ambulance that morning because his father had been vomiting and it wouldn’t stop.

“An hour and a half after the first call, SA Ambulance rang to see how he was going and said they would probably be another hour and a half,” he said.

He said his mother had a “couple of those calls” throughout the day before an ambulance eventually arrived in the afternoon.

“From my understanding from what the doctors in emergency at the Royal Adelaide said, he aspirated in the back of the ambulance – he inhaled his vomit into his lungs,” Skeffington said.

He said the initial cause of vomiting was believed to be a bowel obstruction.

He said after his father had been taken by ambulance, he and his mother were on their way to hospital when they got a call from doctors, saying “you need to get here very quickly, he’s very unwell and we need to make some decisions”.

“They were saying it’s because of the bowel obstruction, saying we can’t do surgery on the bowel because he’s very unwell and has difficulty breathing.

“So he went to ICU. The bowel obstruction resolved itself within two days but the complications of inhaling all the vomit is what killed him in the end. He was in ICU for five days.

“In the end they said there’s nothing more we can do, we’re going to have to stop the life supporting treatment that he was on and he passed away within two hours.”

If ambulances were able to get to people quicker it would have been a different outcome

Skeffington said the care his father received in hospital was “top notch” and he had “no criticism of the ambulance service either”.

“If he was in hospital within a reasonable time he would have been home within a couple of days,” he said.

Skeffington said his father was a “fit, fairly healthy 89-year-old”.

“He was independently mobile, didn’t use any walking aids, still drove, still exercised regularly,” he said.

Bernard “Brian” Skeffington (centre) with his son Martin Skeffington (right) and grandson James Skeffington (left). Photo: Supplied

Skeffington said after his father’s death, his mother had received a phone call from the Coroner’s office telling her the cause of death was “aspiration secondary to bowel obstruction – it was the aspiration that did it”.

“The fact that it was referred to the Coroner in the first place was because I had mentioned to the ICU doctor about the time-delay with the ambulance and he said, ‘Well we definitely need to make the Coroner aware of that’,” he said.

Skeffington has since contacted Opposition health spokesperson Chris Picton who yesterday wrote to State Coroner David Whittle asking him to investigate.

“As you know there are currently systemic issues across the health system, including the highest ever levels of ‘transfer of care delay’ (ambulance ramping) and the lowest ever levels of ambulances responding to callouts within clinically recommended times (ambulance response times),” Picton stated in his letter to the Coroner.

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“These issues highlight the need for an independent review into the circumstances of Mr Skeffington’s death to help prevent the same tragedy occurring to another family.”

A spokesperson for the Coroner told InDaily: “The matter has been reported to the Coroner and will be investigated.”

Picton told InDaily “we have all heard about the crisis in our hospitals but stories like this one are still shocking, and drive home that this is not about statistics – it is about patient lives”.

“Our doctors, nurses and paramedics do an incredible job but they can only work with the resources they are given to them by the Government,” he said.

“This was not a case of any misdiagnosis or error by the clinicians – it is simply a matter that there were not enough ambulances available to respond to this case on time.

“The issue has been getting worse and worse, with now the highest ever ramping and the worst ever ambulance response times.

“My heart goes out to everyone in the Skeffington family. I hope this case can be properly investigated because the family deserve some honest answers as to what happened with the care of their beloved father.”

The paramedics’ union has also extended “deepest sympathies” to the family.

“This is sadly another patient who has waited far too long for an ambulance to attend,” AEA industrial officer Josh Karpowicz said.

“The case was triaged as a Priority 3 – Urgent, which SA Ambulance Service have a target response time to arrive within 30 minutes.

“When members of the public call Triple Zero they expect an ambulance to arrive in minutes not hours.

“Mr Skeffington’s best chance for survival was for an ambulance to arrive in minutes, treated by paramedics and transported to hospital for further care.

“Instead he and his family were forced to wait hours, delaying the urgent care that he so desperately needed.”

Karpowicz called on the Government to recruit more paramedics and “cease ramping at our hospitals”.

Martin Skeffington told InDaily he was speaking out about his father’s death because “I just don’t want it to happen to anybody else”.

“If the ambulance crews are sitting outside of emergency departments they’re not out helping other people,” he said.

“Something needs to change.”

A spokesperson for the SA Ambulance Service said: “SAAS offers sincere condolences to the family of Mr Skeffington during this very sad time.”

“As always, SAAS will assist with any coronial investigation,” the spokesperson said.

“SAAS continues to work on response times so that our crews can get to our patients sooner.

“Recruitment for additional crewing is underway to boost our metropolitan response capacity and to reduce ambulance delays.”

InDaily also contacted SA Health and Health Minister Stephen Wade for comment.

SA Health said it was unable to comment because the matter was before the Coroner.

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